> our title:

RAF Offers Peek At Afghanistan Drone Operations

> original title:

The Air Force Men Who Fly Drones In Afghanistan By Remote Control (excerpt)

(Source: Daily Telegraph; published Sept. 24, 2012)

Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan is reckoned to be as busy as Gatwick. Every few minutes the cloudless skies are filled with the roar of a military fighter taking off – hugging the ground to avoid pot shots by the Taliban’s crude rockets before disappearing into the heat haze.


Since 2007 the RAF has operated 39 Squadron, a detachment of five US-built MQ-9 Reaper aircraft at Kandahar Airfield. While America has a sprawling UAV programme targeting Islamic militants everywhere from Pakistan to Somalia, British Reapers have only ever been used as part of the official combat mission against the Taliban over Afghanistan.

The vast majority of the 38,500 hours of operations flown by the RAF Reapers have been in intelligence-gathering rather than in attacking targets. Most of the 35 RAF Reaper pilots are based at Creech, an airfield near Las Vegas, where they control the aircraft via satellite as they fly over Afghanistan.

But the two-second delay between a pilot moving a joystick in Nevada and an aircraft responding in Afghanistan is enough to cause a crash during take-off and landing. Crews in Afghanistan control 'launch and recovery’ through direct contact with antennae on the aircraft. Half an hour after take-off, control of the Reaper is handed to a crew in Nevada; half an hour before landing, it returns to the crews on the ground in Kandahar.

Kandahar Airfield is a vast, crowded military camp, full of private-security contractors in new SUVs, soccer pitches, traffic jams, and the 'boardwalk’ – a Midwest-style town square where soldiers carrying automatic weapons visit frozen-yogurt outlets and TGI Friday’s. Far from prying eyes, the Reaper pilots work in a corner of the airfield behind concrete blast barriers to protect them from the sporadic Taliban rocket attacks.

Their cockpit is a cabin full of wires and computer servers – a sealed and spotless world without the film of white dust that covers Kandahar Airfield. The crew sit side by side in leather seats as if in a conventional aircraft, dressed in all-in-one khaki flight suits. A technician fiddles with wires on a bank of hard drives. Office carpets cover the floor. Apart from the low rumble of the air-conditioning, it is as silent as a cathedral. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full story, on the Daily Telegraph website.